N. Dearborn St. bridge - opened October 27, 1963

Elevation Drawing of the current N. Dearborn St. Bridge (Courtesy of CDOT, Division of Engineering)

The current bridge at N. Dearborn Street marks 50 years of service on October 27. Mayor Richard J Daley presided over the 1963 ceremony. According to the Chicago Tribune report of the event, no speeches were given, only a hand signal from the Mayor. The bridge was lowered into place and a procession consisting of a single Cadillac followed by about twenty cyclists crossed the bridge. Seventeen minutes later, regular traffic started flowing across the bridge.

This Chicago-type bascule bridge was a replacement for a Scherzer rolling-lift bascule removed in 1959. The project was reportedly $2.3 million over budget and three years behind schedule. A national steel strike, foundation problems, and concern that the combined effects from foundation work for both the bridge and Marina City (built during the same period) might adversely effect neighboring buildings added to the cost and delays.

The Dearborn street river crossing has a long history. The first movable bridge in Chicago was built at this location in 1834 (bridge plaque shown on Dearborn p1). That bridge was a double-leaf bridge similar to today's bridge, but the limitations of 1834 technology produced a generally hated bridge. This is reflected in the accounts of its demise in 1839. The morning after the town council decided to remove it, the townspeople arrived before daylight to demolish the bridge themselves.

The second bridge at Dearborn Street appeared in 1888. Accounts from the Chicago Daily Tribune tell how the existing Wells street swing bridge was floated to Dearborn street via four scows.

The installation was controversial. With swing bridges at both State and Clark streets, navigation interests were concerned that a third bridge in the middle would hinder navigation on the river. Due to the close spacing, only two of the three bridges would swing open for vessels, thus slowing river traffic.

Elevation Drawing of the 1907 Scherzer rolling-lift bridge at N. Dearborn St. (Courtesy of CDOT, Division of Engineering)

The third bridge was a rolling-lift bascule opened in 1907. At the time, Chicago was under a mandate from the U.S. Government to replace all swing bridges, because of their interference with navigation on the Chicago River. The Chicago Public Works department had limited funding and manpower, so the Sanitary District (predecessor of the Metropolitan Water District) built downtown bridges in the early 20th Century too. In addition to the rolling-lift bridge at Dearborn, they built Scherzer rolling-lift bridges at State, Randolph, Van Buren, and a Strauss designed bascule at Jackson.

The current Dearborn street bridge is the fourth at this location and one of four “modern” (post 1950) Chicago-type bascule bridges downtown. These bridges are most easily identified by their single bridgehouse. As with several other downtown bridges, this bridge received an award of merit by the American Institute of Steel Construction when it was completed.

While the Dearborn Street bridge may not have the panache of its elder brethren, it is still an icon to be appreciated as we remember the story of Chicago and its river.

Dearborn St. bridge open for a spring boat run in 2013

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